It is difficult to drive, thirsty on the fuel and not particularly comfortable. And yet, for all that, there were howls and groans last week when it was announced that the production of India’s celebrated Hindustan Ambassador – the Amby – is to be suspended. Many fear it marks the end.
In a statement issued by India’s Hindustan Motors over the weekend, the company said production at its plant outside the city of Kolkata is being halted because of problems including low productivity and poor discipline. It also cited a lack of demand for its core product – namely the Ambassador.
Production of the Ambassador, based on the 1950s British Morris Oxford, began in 1957, and for many years it was just about the only car available in India, and even then not easily so. At one point, an order for a vehicle could take more than a year to supply and the manufacturer held a 70 per cent share of the market.
But the car’s dominance began to slip, first in the 1980s when the joint Indian-Japan venture Maruti Suzuki began producing low-cost hatchbacks, and then again the following decade when the market was opened to all international car manufacturers. Maruti now accounts for nearly 50 per cent of all new cars sold in the country.
For a while, the car retained a loyal following among government ministers and senior diplomats, who considered the clunky cars, often fitted with interior fans, curtains and a flashing blue light on top, as the ultimate status symbol.
But even this niche market started to look elsewhere after security experts started to complain about the car’s vulnerability to attacks from militants. In 2002, it was revealed that the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had switched his Ambassador for a bullet-proof BMW SUV.
His successor, Manmohan Singh, followed the trend, while India’s newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, also used an SUV during much of his election campaign.
According to the Reuters news agency, Hindustan Motors sold about 2,200 Ambassadors in the fiscal year that ended in March 2014, only a sliver of the 1.8 million passenger cars sold that year in India. Last year, Hindustan Motors accumulated losses exceeding its net worth and has been looking for investors since then.
The Ambassador’s plight has not been helped by the fact that the once-booming car market has slumped as a result of an economy that has stalled from almost 10 per cent a couple of years ago to less than 5 per cent.
Car sales have fallen for the second year running, something that may be a blessing for users of India’s clogged, polluted roads, but of little comfort to carmakers. They have been trying to expand sales in rural India as a way of finding new customers.
One place where the Ambassador remains strong in numbers is the city of Kolkata in West Bengal, where more than 33,000 black and yellow-painted models are used as taxis. Many of them are ancient and have been repeatedly repaired.
Owners and drivers of Ambassadors say that, because of the vehicle’s relatively simple design, they are easy to fix, and parts have been readily available.
Hindustan Motors failed to respond to a list of emailed questions about what was happening at its Uttarpara production facility. Yet in a statement, the company said: “The suspension of work will enable the company to restrict mounting liabilities and restructure its organisation and finances and bring in a situation conducive to the reopening of the plant.”
Sugato Sen, a senior official with the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, said there had been conflicting reports in the media about the suspension of production.
“The car is one of the most important and popular Indian cars. It has been there for many years and we have all grown up with it. Even today, there are many Ambassadors being used by government officials,” he said.
Mr Sen said the society had received no official word yet from Hindustan Motors, which is a member, about the suspension or halt in production. “Let us wait and see,” he said. “If there is some investor found, then there will be a revival.”